Plans to Shackle Industrial Action Have a More Sinister Purpose

18/07/2014 15:39 BST | Updated 17/09/2014 10:59 BST

So now we know what the Conservative manifesto will say about industrial action.

Strike ballots will require a 50% turn out to be valid. Breaches of the picketing code of practice will be criminalised. A whole new list of rules and regulations will be introduced that will be almost impossible for unions to meet. So even when a union meets the threshold requirement, employers will have plenty of new opportunities to get injunctions against a strike.

This goes far further than anything Mrs Thatcher did in limiting the right to strike. Such a turn out threshold is very rarely met by ballots involving more than a small workforce. It adds up to an effective end to the right to strike for many groups of workers - normally the kind of measure that we associate with dictatorships, not democracies.

No doubt we will be told it would be much better for unions to sort out their differences with employers by talking rather than striking. Unions agree with this - and indeed collective bargaining takes place across the country every day of the week and strikes are rare.

But for negotiations to work each side has to have some power. The individual relationship between an employer and employee is inevitably one-sided. Employees get back some power by banding together in unions, and the threat to withdraw labour, though rarely implemented, makes negotiations work. Oliver Twist was not negotiating when he asked for some more as he had no power.

And the effect of union negotiations spreads through the economy. Union collective bargaining sets pay rates, paves the way on flexible working and equal opportunities, and delivers better pensions. These then spread to other companies. If you weaken the ability of unions to bargain, then there will be consequences throughout the economy, union and non-union.

There is increasing concern about a growing gap between those at the top of society and the rest. This is not just driven by concerns that it is unfair that the majority have suffered a living standards crisis while those at the top have not. It also flows from a realisation that inequality makes for economic inefficiency and unstable economies. When wages fall, people borrow more - and when that fed into sub-prime mortgages the banking system nearly collapsed.

Organisations as far away from unions as the IMF now say that more collective bargaining has wider economic benefits.

But Conservative plans take us in the opposite direction. They look like part of an effort to exclude the many from the fruits of recovery and reserve them for the few.

And when we look at the detail we find a mixture of the absurd and the chilling. The ballot threshold has the bizarre effect of making abstentions more powerful than votes against a strike. Think of a ballot that just meets the 50 per cent turnout threshold. It would only take a few people who voted against to have abstained instead to make the ballot invalid as the turnout would fall below the threshold.

Notably absent is any proposal to increase turn-out. Strike ballots can only take place by post.

Yet we live in an era when communications has moved on-line. Most of our post these days is bills and junk mail - and it is not surprising that people often miss ballots. No-one wants to go back to votes by show of hands in company car parks, but allowing secure and secret online balloting would be bound to increase turn-out (You can join our online campaign action in support of this).

All the small print in this week's announcement about ballot rules simply adds bureaucratic burdens to unions. Members only vote to strike - and thus lose pay - if they feel strongly about an issue. More rules about ballot wording will not affect results, but will make it easier for lawyers to find fault and seek injunctions against strikes that clearly have proper support but have missed one tiny bit of red tape.

And as for bringing the criminal law into the regulation of pickets (which are of course already subject to public order law) I cannot make the case against this better than Norman Tebbit does at the Telegraph here.

Of course strikes can inconvenience people, but you do not have to support every bit of industrial action to see that the right to strike is both a basic human right and a way of reducing the gap between those at the top and the rest of us. After more than a decade of falling living standards we should be clear that shackling unions has a much more sinister purpose than reducing the odd bit of hassle.